Jonah 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.
1. it displeased Jonah, &c.] Lit. It was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it (viz. anger) kindled to him. Comp. Nehemiah 2:10. It is clear that the immediate cause of Jonah’s anger and vexation was the preservation of Nineveh and the non-fulfilment of the threat which he had been sent to pronounce. It was the anticipation of this result, founded on the revealed character of God, that made him decline the errand at first (Jonah 4:2). It was the realisation of it that so greatly troubled him now. But why this result of his mission should have thus affected him it has not been found so easy to decide. Some have thought—but the view has nothing to commend it—that his annoyance was purely personal and selfish, and that he was stung by the disgrace of appearing as a false prophet in the sight of the heathen because his predictions had not been verified. Others with better show of reason have assigned to his displeasure the more worthy motive of jealousy for the honour of God, in whose name and with whose message he had come to Nineveh, and on whom he thought the reproach of fickleness and inconstancy would fall. “He connected,” writes Calvin, “his own ministry with the glory of God, and rightly, because it depended on His authority. Jonah, when he entered Nineveh, did not utter his cry as a private individual, but professed himself to be sent by God. Now, if the proclamation of Jonah is found to be false, the disgrace will fall upon the author of the call himself, namely on God. There is no doubt, therefore, that Jonah took it ill that the name of God was exposed to the revilings of the heathen, as though He terrified without cause.” It is far more satisfactory, however, to suppose that Jonah was displeased that the mercy of God should be extended to heathen, and especially to heathen who were the enemies and future oppressors of his own people, and that he himself should be the messenger of that mercy. This view falls in entirely with the exclusive spirit which marks the Old Testament dispensation, while it brings out into bold relief the liberal and Catholic spirit of the New Testament, which it is the object of this book to inculcate.

Ch. Jonah 4:1-11. Jonah’s Displeasure, and its Rebuke

Greatly displeased at the clemency of God towards Nineveh, Jonah confesses that it was the expectation that that clemency would be exercised, which rendered him unwilling to undertake the divine mission at the first, and in his annoyance and chagrin requests that he may die, 1–3. Met by the calm appeal to reason, which however he is in no mood to entertain, Doest thou well to be angry? Jonah goes out of the city, and constructs in the immediate vicinity a booth or hut, under the shelter of which he may dwell and watch, till the forty days are expired, what the fate of Nineveh will be, 4, 5. Intending to correct and instruct him by an acted parable, in which he himself should bear the chief part, God causes a wide-spreading plant to spring up and cover his booth with its refreshing shade. But scarcely has Jonah begun to enjoy the welcome shelter from the burning rays of the sun thus afforded him, when God, in pursuit of His lesson, causes the plant to be attacked by insects, which rapidly strip it of its protecting leaves and cause it to wither away, 6, 7. Once again, the hand that governs all things sets in motion, like the blast of a furnace, the burning wind of the desert, and the sun’s unbroken rays pour down on the now defenceless head of Jonah, so that faint and weary, beneath the weight of bodily distress and mental disappointment, he urges anew his passionate complaint, Better for me to die than to live! 7, 8. And now the parable is complete, and only needs to be applied and interpreted. Thou couldst have pity upon a short-lived plant, which cost thee and which owed thee nothing; thou art angry and justifiest thine anger, even unto death, for its loss; and shall not I, the Maker and the Lord of all, have pity upon a great city, which, apart from its adult population who might seem to have deserved their doom, numbers its six-score thousand innocent children, and “very much cattle”—they too “much better than” a plant? 9–11.

And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
2. he prayed] His better mind had not altogether forsaken him. He did not as before flee from the presence of the Lord, but betook himself to Him, even in his irritation and discontent.

I pray thee] A particle of entreaty. In Jonah 1:14 it is translated “we beseech thee.”

I fled before] Lit. I prevented or anticipated to flee. That is, I fled before something could happen. LXX. προέφθασα τοῦ φυγεῖν. The ellipsis has been variously supplied. “ ‘I anticipated or prevented (another charge) by escaping’; that is ‘I fled before’ another charge could reach me.”—Kalisch. “I anticipated (the danger which threatens me) by fleeing to Tarshish.”—Gesenius. “I hastened my flight.”—Rosenmüller; or, “hasted to flee,” R.V.

for I knew, &c.] In common with all Israelites Jonah knew the character of God to be what he here describes it, from His ancient revelation to Moses (Exodus 34:6), repeated frequently by prophets and psalmists (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8), and renewed in exactly the same terms as here by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:13). Knowing that God threatens that He may spare, and warns that He may save, Jonah rightly understood from the first that his mission to Nineveh was a mission of mercy, and therefore he was unwilling to undertake it.

Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
3. take … my life from me] So had Moses prayed (Numbers 11:15) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), both with better cause, and in nobler spirit, but both in the same utter weariness of life as Jonah. No one of them, however, attempts to take his own life. They all regard it as a sacred deposit, entrusted to them by God and only to be relinquished at His bidding, or in accordance with His will. Comp. Jonah 4:8 below.

Then said the LORD, Doest thou well to be angry?
4. Doest thou well to be angry?] Two other translations of these words have been suggested. One, which though perhaps possible is far-fetched and highly improbable, is, “Does (my) doing good (that is, to Nineveh in sparing it) make thee angry?” the reproof then being similar to that in Matthew 20:15, “Is thine eye evil because I am good?” The other, which is given in the margin both of A.V. and R.V., “Art thou greatly angry?” is fully borne out by the Hebrew, but, as has been truly said, it “is in this context almost pointless.” But the rendering of the text is in accordance with Hebrew usage (comp. “They have well said all that they have spoken,” Deuteronomy 5:28 [Heb. 25]; “Thou hast well seen,” Jeremiah 1:12) and gives a much more forcible sense. It is the gentle question of suggested reproof, designed to still the tumult of passion and lead to consideration and reflection. God does not as a judge condemn Jonah’s unreasonable anger, but invites him to judge and condemn himself.

So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
5. So Jonah went out of the city] It has been proposed to take the verbs in this verse as pluperfects: “Now Jonah had gone out of the city, and abode on the east side of the city, &c.” The verse will then be a parenthesis introduced to relate what had really taken place before Jonah’s anger and complaint. In point of time it will precede the first verse of the chapter. It is doubtful, however, whether such a rendering is grammatically allowable; nor is there any reason for adopting it. The course of the narrative flows regularly on throughout the chapter. Jonah while still in the city comes to know that Nineveh will be spared. In bitter displeasure he complains to God, and is rebuked (Jonah 4:1-4). Still cherishing the hope of vengeance, fostered possibly by the question in Jonah 4:4, which his distempered mind might interpret to mean, “Do not judge too hastily what My purposes may be,” he will not abandon the city altogether. He will linger yet awhile in its precincts, and watch what its fate shall be.

on the east side of the city] where it was skirted by hills. Probably he chose some eminence from which he could command a view of the city.

a booth] of twigs and branches, such as the Israelites were directed to dwell in for seven days at the feast of tabernacles (Leviticus 23:42; Nehemiah 8:14-16). Such were the “tabernacles” which St Peter proposed to make on the Mount of Transfiguration.

till he might see what would become of the city] We are not told whether this was before or after the forty days had expired. If it was before, then we must suppose that Jonah, and possibly the Ninevites also, had some direct intimation that God would spare the city, and that Jonah in his reluctance to accept the result still tarried in the neighbourhood, in the hope that on the appointed day the blow would fall. If however we suppose that the forty days had elapsed without the threatened judgment being executed, and that it was by this that Jonah and the Ninevites knew that God had repented Him of the evil, we can only conclude that Jonah hoped for some later punishment upon the people of Nineveh, provoked it might be by their speedy relapse into sin. “The days being now past, after which it was time that the things foretold should be accomplished, and His anger as yet taking no effect, Jonah understood that a respite of the evil has been granted them, on their willingness to repent, but thinks that some effect of His displeasure would come, since the pains of their repentance had not equalled their offences. So thinking in himself apparently, he departs from the city, and waits to see what will become of them.”—St Cyr. quoted by Pusey.

And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
6. prepared] Rather, appointed. And so in Jonah 4:7-8. See Jonah 1:17, note.

a gourd] This is the only place in the Old Testament in which the Hebrew word here translated gourd occurs. It is quite a different word which is rendered gourd in 2 Kings 4:39, and (of architectural ornaments) in 1 Kings 6:18 (margin), 1 Kings 7:24. It is an old controversy, dating back as far as the times of Jerome and Augustine, whether Jonah’s plant was a gourd or not. It is now generally admitted that it was not, but that the plant intended is the ricinus communis or castor-oil plant. This plant satisfies all the requirements of the history. The name kikayon here used in the Hebrew is akin to the word kikeia or kiki (Herodot. II. 94), which ancient authors tell us was used by the Egyptians and others for the castor-oil plant. That plant is a native of North Africa, Arabia, Syria and Palestine, and is said by travellers to grow abundantly and to a great size in the neighbourhood of the Tigris. It is succulent, with a hollow stem, and has broad vine-like leaves (much larger, however, than those of the vine), which from their supposed resemblance to the extended palm of the hand have gained for the plant the name of Palma Christi, or palmchrist. It grows with such extraordinary rapidity that under favourable conditions it rises to about eight feet within five or six months, while in America it has been known to reach the height of thirteen feet in less than three months. Jerome also bears testimony to the rapidity of its growth. It is, he says, “a shrub with broad leaves like vine-leaves. It gives a very dense shade, and supports itself on its own stem. It grows most abundantly in Palestine, especially in sandy spots. If you cast the seed into the ground, it is soon quickened, rises marvellously into a tree, and in a few days what you had beheld a herb you look up to a shrub.”—Pusey.

made it to come up] Or, it came up. The naturally rapid growth of the plant was miraculously accelerated. As in other miracles of Holy Scripture Almighty God at once resembled nature and exceeded nature. “We know that God, when He does anything beyond the course of nature, does nevertheless come near to nature in His working. This is not indeed always the case; but we shall find for the most part that God has so worked as to outdo the course of nature, and yet not to desert nature altogether.… So too in this place, I do not doubt that God chose a plant, which would quickly grow up even to such a height as this, and yet that He surpassed the wonted course of nature.” (Calvin.) In like manner, our Lord, when at the marriage-feast in Cana He turned the water into wine, “was working in the line of (above, indeed, but not across or counter to) His more ordinary workings, which we see daily around us, the unnoticed miracles of every-day nature.” “He made wine that day at the marriage in those six water-pots which He had commanded to be filled with water, Who every year makes it in the vines. For as what the servants had put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the working of the Lord, so too what the clouds pour forth is turned into wine by the working of the same Lord. This however, we do not wonder at, because it happens every year: its frequency has made it cease to be a marvel.” St Augustine, quoted by Trench On the Miracles.

a shadow over his head] His booth or hut, made as we have seen of twigs and branches, the leaves of which would naturally soon wither, was far from being impervious to the rays of the sun. The living plant rising above the booth and covering it with its broad shadow would prove a most welcome addition.

from his grief] Lit. his evil, the same word as in Jonah 4:1. The gloomy and dissatisfied condition of his mind had been aggravated by physical causes. The heat and closeness of his booth had added to the weariness and oppression of his spirit. The palmchrist with its refreshing shade by ministering to his bodily comfort had tended also to calm and soothe the agitation of his mind. We need not look for any deeper meaning in the words. It is surely a mistake to say that Jonah “must have looked upon its sudden growth as a fruit of God’s goodness towards him (as it was) and then perhaps went on to think (as people do) that this favour of God showed that He meant in the end to grant him what his heart was set upon.” (Pusey.) The object of the writer is not to tell us what inferences Jonah drew from the sudden growth of the plant, but what was the object and intention of Almighty God in causing it to grow up over him. He sent it to refresh him as a step in His lesson of correction and amendment; He did not send it to mislead him. The force of the rebuke in Jonah 4:10-11, in which the chapter culminates and which turns entirely upon Jonah’s joy and grief for the plant, is greatly weakened if we import into that joy and grief such moral elements.

But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
7. a worm] This of course may mean a single worm which either by attacking the root or gnawing the stem, still young and tender and not yet hardened by maturity, suddenly destroyed the palmchrist. It is better, however, to take the word in its collective sense, worms, as in Deuteronomy 28:39; Isaiah 14:11, and other passages. Thus the special intervention of Almighty God again accommodates itself to nature. “The destruction may have been altogether in the way of nature, except that it happened at that precise moment, when it was to be a lesson to Jonah. ‘On warm days, when a small rain falls, black caterpillars are generated in great numbers on this plant, which, in one night, so often and so suddenly cut off its leaves, that only their bare ribs remain, which I have often observed with much wonder, as though it were a copy of that destruction of old at Nineveh.’ ”—Pusey.

And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
8. a vehement east wind] Margin, silent. This, or sultry, R.V., is probably the true meaning of the word. “We have two kinds of sirocco,” writes Dr Thomson, “one accompanied with vehement wind which fills the air with dust and fine sand … The sirocco to-day is of the quiet kind, and they are often more overpowering than the others. I encountered one a year ago on my way from Lydd to Jerusalem. There is no living thing abroad to make a noise. The birds hide in thickest shades; the fowls pant under the walls with open mouth and drooping wings; the flocks and herds take shelter in caves and under great rocks; the labourers retire from the fields, and close the windows and doors of their houses; and travellers hasten, as I did, to take shelter in the first cool place they can find. No one has energy enough to make a noise, and the very air is too weak and languid to stir the pendent leaves of the tall poplars.” Land and Book, pp. 536, 537. The occurrence of this wind at sunrise is referred to as a usual thing by St James, James 1:11, where the same Greek word (καύσων) is used for “burning heat” as is used by the LXX. here.

fainted] It is the same word as occurs in Genesis 38:14, “covered her with a veil,” veiled herself, the reference being either to the film that comes over the eyes in fainting and exhaustion, or to the clouding of the mental powers from the same cause. This word is used again of fainting from thirst in Amos 8:13, and a similar word in the same metaphorical sense in ch. Jonah 2:7 of this book, where see note.

wished in himself to die] Lit. asked for his life to die. Exactly the same expression occurs with reference to Elijah when he was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel, 1 Kings 19:4. The meaning of the phrase seems to be that the prophet, both in the one case and in the other, recognizing that his life was not his own, but God’s, asked for it of Him as a gift or boon, that he might do with it what he pleased. Then the object with which he asked for it, the way in which he would have it disposed of, is expressed by the word “to die,” or “for death.” Hezekiah might have asked for his life, as indeed he did, in his grievous sickness, but it was not “to die,” but “to live.” The example of Elijah may perhaps have been in Jonah’s mind when he penned these words, or even when he gave vent to his impatient desire to die. If the Jewish tradition that Jonah was the son of the widow of Zarephath and the “servant” whom he left at Beersheba, 1 Kings 19:3, could be accepted, this would be the more probable. The cases of the two prophets were however in reality very different. Both were weary of life. Both desired to die. Both gave expression to their desire in the same words. But here the resemblance ends. Elijah’s was a noble disappointment. “On Carmel the great object for which Elijah had lived seemed on the point of being realised. Baal’s prophets were slain, Jehovah acknowledged with one voice: false worship put down. Elijah’s life aim—the transformation of Israel into a kingdom of God—was all but accomplished. In a single day all this bright picture was annihilated.” (Robertson.) But Jonah’s was a far less worthy grief. It was not that God’s kingdom was overthrown in Israel, but that it was extended to the heathen world, that made him weary of his life. Elijah grieved because he had failed in his efforts to convert and save Israel; Jonah because he had succeeded in converting and saving Nineveh.

It is better &c.] The words “It is” which, as the italics in A.V. show, are not in the original, are better omitted: “And said, Better for me to die than to live.”

The excess of Jonah’s joy and grief over the bestowal and loss of the gourd was partly due to his sanguine and impulsive character. But the influence here ascribed to physical circumstances over the mind, especially when it is burdened with a great grief, is very true to nature. “We would fain believe that the mind has power over the body, but it is just as true that the body rules the mind. Causes apparently the most trivial: a heated room—want of exercise—a sunless day—a northern aspect—will make all the difference between happiness and unhappiness, between faith and doubt, between courage and indecision.” (Robertson.)

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
9. even unto death] “Art thou rightly angry for the palmchrist? I am rightly angry, (and that) unto death:” i. e. “my anger is so great that it well-nigh kills me, and even in that excess it is justified by the circumstances.” In like manner it is said of Samson that “his soul was vexed unto death” by the urgency of Delilah (Jdg 16:16), and our Lord exclaims in the garden, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38), where Alford observes, “Our Lord’s soul was crushed down even to death by the weight of that anguish which lay upon Him—and that literally—so that He (as regards His humanity) would have died, had not strength (bodily strength upholding His human frame) been ministered from on high by an angel, Luke 22:43.” The question in its more general form, “Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4) is here narrowed to a single issue, “Doest thou well to be angry for the palmchrist?” And Jonah, in his unreasoning irritation, accepts and answers it on that single issue, and thus unwrittingly prepares the way for the unanswerable argument which follows.

Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
10. for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow] The principle on which the contrast implied by these words rests is that the effort which we have bestowed upon any object, the degree in which our powers of mind or heart or body have been expended upon it, in a word what it has cost us, is a measure of our regard for it. No claim of this kind had the plant on Jonah. No single effort had he made for it. He had not planted, or trained, or watered it, yet he pitied it, and mourned for its decay with a yearning tenderness. But on Almighty God, though the contrast is rather implied than expressed, all creation has such a claim in fullest measure. He “labours” not indeed; He speaks, and it is done; He wills, and it is accomplished. Yet in all things that exist He has the deepest interest. He planned them, He made them, He sustains them, He rules them, He cares for them. His tender mercies are over all His works. “This entire train of thought,” as Kalisch well remarks, “is implied in the following fine lines of the Wisdom of Solomon: ‘The whole world is before Thee as a drop of the morning dew; but Thou hast mercy upon all … and overlookest the sins of men, in order that they may amend; for Thou lovest all the things that are, and disdainest nothing that Thou hast made.… Indeed Thou sparest all, for they are Thine, O Lord, Thou lover of souls.’ Wis 11:22-26.”

came up in a night &c.] lit. was the son of a night, and perished the son of a night, i. e. it came into existence and reached maturity (comp. for this sense of was, And God said Let light be, and light was, Genesis 1:3) in a single night, and no less rapidly (not literally in a single night, for it was when the morning arose) withered away.

10, 11.] The final appeal is forcible and conclusive, a grand and worthy climax to this remarkable book. The contrasts are striking and designed: Thou and I (the pronouns are emphatic, and each of them introduces a member of the comparison), man and God; the short-lived palmchrist and Nineveh that great city; the plant that cost thee nothing, the vast population, the sixscore thousand children, the very much cattle, which I made and uphold continually. Jonah is met upon his own ground, the merely human sentiment of compassion, regard for what is useful and good after its kind, sorrow for its loss, unwillingness to see it perish. The higher moral ground is for the time abandoned. The repentance of the Ninevites is not brought into consideration. But the lower ground is a step to the higher. “The natural God-implanted feeling is the germ of the spiritual.”

And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
11. that cannot discern &c.] The idea that the whole population of Nineveh is thus described, the reference being to their moral condition of heathen ignorance and darkness, has nothing to recommend it. On the contrary, the moral susceptibility of the Ninevites, although they are heathen, is, as we have seen, a prominent feature in the history. The reference is no doubt to the children of tender age who were as yet incapable of moral discrimination, and could not therefore be regarded as responsible agents. The same thought is expressed, without a metaphor, by the phrases, “having no knowledge between good and evil,” Deuteronomy 1:39; “Knowing to refuse the evil, and choose the good,” Isaiah 7:15-16. Between these helpless and innocent children, together with the great multitude of unoffending animals which the vast area of Nineveh contained, and the plant over which Jonah mourned, regarded simply as objects of human compassion, all moral considerations apart, the comparison lies.

Any attempt to compute the whole population of Nineveh from the data thus given must necessarily be precarious, from the difficulty of deciding at what age the line is to be drawn. But in any case the total would not be excessive, for the population of so large an area as we have seen that Nineveh enclosed.

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